Soccer Sports

They Shot at Her. They Pressured Her From Her House. She Gained’t Cease Combating for Women.

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Khalida Popal, the previous captain of the Afghanistan girls’s nationwide soccer group, wakened on the ground of her condo close to Copenhagen, drenched in sweat and shaking.

She had collapsed and couldn’t converse. An ambulance rushed to her.

It was two years in the past final month, and the Taliban have been taking management of Afghanistan. Feminine soccer gamers on the nationwide group Popal helped create in 2007 have been determined to depart the nation, fearing that the Taliban would kill them for taking part in the game.

Gamers have been deluging Popal with requests for assist, and she or he felt smothered by guilt. For greater than 15 years, a lot of that interval spent in exile, she had inspired Afghan women to take part in all areas of society, together with sports activities, jobs and training.

The message was all the pieces the Taliban despised.

“I really feel answerable for these women,” Popal mentioned later. “I’d somewhat die than flip my again on them.”

So on that blue-sky summer season afternoon in 2021, Popal had a panic assault and thought she may be dying. However in a present of her resilience in a life marked by trauma, she waved away the medical employees and returned to her desk to proceed coordinating an evacuation of gamers and their households from Kabul, the Afghan capital.

Counting on a community she constructed by way of her activism, she helped rescue 87 folks, together with the senior nationwide group. Months later, one other 130.

Now Popal is on one other mission, one which reached its peak at this summer season’s Ladies’s World Cup. She is attempting to persuade FIFA, soccer’s world governing physique, to let gamers on the Afghan girls’s nationwide group characterize their nation once more after the Taliban barred women and girls from taking part in sports activities.

The gamers, after escaping Afghanistan with Popal’s assist, reside in Australia, which hosted this 12 months’s World Cup with New Zealand. Although the group is competing for the Melbourne Victory soccer membership, FIFA refuses to acknowledge it as a nationwide group as a result of the Afghanistan Soccer Federation claims it doesn’t exist. Beneath the Taliban, no girls’s group does.

“These gamers dreamed of taking part in soccer for Afghanistan and males simply got here and took that dream from them,” Popal mentioned. “FIFA is saying, ‘We’re sorry that you just’ve misplaced your proper to play soccer, women, when you’ve gotten completed nothing to deserve it.’ It’s disgusting.”

In an emailed assertion, FIFA mentioned it can’t acknowledge a nationwide group until it’s first acknowledged by its nationwide federation. FIFA has declared it a precedence to make sure equal entry to soccer with out discrimination. However in Afghanistan’s case, it’s simply “monitoring the state of affairs very intently,” in line with its assertion.

A spokesman for the Afghanistan Soccer Federation mentioned the group may do nothing to assist as a result of the ladies’s nationwide group dissolved when the gamers fled the nation — an assertion the gamers reject.

Additionally, days earlier than the World Cup started, Popal flew to Melbourne for a match that Melbourne Victory organized, at her suggestion, between the exiled Afghan group and a group that represented the realm’s migrants and refugees. They referred to as the occasion the Hope Cup.

About 50 followers watched the Afghan gamers wave their nation’s flag and sing about their nation. One Afghan wore a T-shirt that mentioned, “Save our households,” as a result of many gamers’ kinfolk have been nonetheless hoping to obtain humanitarian visas to stay in Australia.

Like a Hollywood publicist, Popal performed cheerful but decided host, rooting for the gamers, taking images and talking to reporters.

“Khalida is reminding the world that we’re nonetheless right here, don’t neglect us,” mentioned Fati Yousufi, the Afghan group’s captain and goalkeeper. “I do know loads of us have mentioned, ‘I wish to be like Khalida sooner or later, a robust and highly effective girl.’”

Anybody who needs to be like Popal ought to perceive that her advocacy for the Afghan group has include critical sacrifices.

“It has taken an enormous toll on her,” mentioned Kelly Lindsey, an American whom Popal recruited to teach the Afghan nationwide group in 2016. “However she gained’t cease for a second to care for herself. As a result of if she did that, there can be no time for her to care for others.”

Even earlier than the Taliban dominated Afghanistan, males would throw rocks at Popal when she performed soccer on the street, claiming it was immoral for ladies to play sports activities. But she at all times believed girls may earn respect by way of soccer as a result of it was a language males understood.

Through the Taliban’s first reign, from when Popal was age 9 to 14, she was caught in a Pakistani refugee tent metropolis, with soccer as her solely outlet. When her household returned to Kabul in 2002 after a U.S.-led coalition drove out the Taliban, she was desirous to develop the game.

Her mom, Shokria Popal, a bodily training instructor, helped recruit gamers, typically contending with mother and father who referred to as her a prostitute attempting to destroy the tradition. Academics slapped Khalida within the face and tried to expel her for her work. However from the Popals’ efforts, highschool groups have been born. 5 years later, the Afghanistan Soccer Federation accepted Khalida’s group as the ladies’s nationwide group.

It was too harmful for the group to play in public as a result of spiritual conservatives mentioned the sportswear confirmed the shapes of ladies’s our bodies, defying Islam. So the group practiced inside a NATO base, utilizing hand-me-down tools from the federation’s males’s groups and practising on an lively helipad. Helicopters kicked up mud that caked the gamers’ faces and coated their throats.

The squad as soon as misplaced a global match by 17-0. However to Popal, profitable was not as vital because the message.

The group, which performed its official matches outdoors the nation, first made nationwide information in 2010 when it performed NATO troopers in Kabul. Talking to journalists, Popal denounced the Taliban. There was an instantaneous value.

A few of her teammates have been pressured to give up as a result of their households hadn’t recognized that they have been taking part in. Popal recalled receiving dying threats, together with from one caller who mentioned he would minimize her to items.

Her father and one in every of her 4 brothers have been slashed with knives and overwhelmed with weapons as a result of, because the assailants mentioned to them, they “weren’t actual males for letting their daughter and sister play soccer,” her father, Timor Shah Popal, recalled.

In 2011, Popal was working as the pinnacle of finance and ladies’s soccer on the in any other case all-male federation, attempting to mix in along with her colleagues by sporting dishevelled garments and talking in tough slang, when she complained on nationwide tv that the ladies’s group wasn’t getting sufficient assist. She blamed corrupt sports activities officers for it.

Days later, she mentioned, a truck rammed into the automobile she was driving in. Uniformed males fired photographs by way of the home windows, however she was not bodily harmed. Then, when the Afghanistan Olympic committee’s headquarters have been vandalized, Popal was amongst these blamed.

Although she denied involvement, the police issued a warrant for her arrest. Hours earlier than the federal government barred her from touring, she boarded a airplane to India.

Popal was on the run. A number of occasions, she modified her telephone quantity and her lodge, however threats discovered their method to her. One textual content message mentioned, “We won’t let your mother and father stay. Come again for payback.”

The following summer season, she realized that her brother Idris had been shot and killed on the best way to a college math class in Kabul, and was certain that the dying was related to her activism.

She made her method to Denmark after the sportswear firm Hummel, the Afghan group’s sponsor, helped her apply for asylum there. For a 12 months, she lived in a refugee middle surrounded by barbed wire fences. Gunfire from the adjoining army taking pictures vary supplied an unnerving soundtrack.

Day by day, she wakened along with her eyes swollen from crying. At evening, she saved the lights on in her barracks due to a recurring dream {that a} man was on the foot of her mattress, attempting to kill her. She thought-about suicide.

“I spent loads of time wanting on the birds and feeling jealous as a result of they’ve wings to fly and I used to be only a ineffective physique with no identification,” she recalled.

With the assistance of a therapist and medicine, her melancholy lifted. In exile, Popal finally volunteered because the Afghan nationwide group’s program director, organizing match appearances and hiring coaches. She additionally coordinated surreptitious exits to secure international locations for homosexual gamers who feared persecution and compelled marriages.

However even girls who remained with the group weren’t secure. In 2018, Popal noticed federation officers sexually harassing gamers at a coaching camp in Jordan. Gamers instructed her that they’d been sexually abused by these and different officers, together with Keramuddin Keram, who was the federation’s president and a strong politician. Popal reported what she had heard, however for eight months FIFA officers did nothing, in line with Popal and Lindsey, the coach.

Popal persuaded 10 gamers to return ahead and obtained blueprints of the federation’s headquarters. That paperwork confirmed Keram had a secret bed room connected to his workplace the place, gamers instructed her, he beat and raped them.

FIFA finally barred Keram from the game for all times and the Afghan courts punished him and 4 others. The case was the primary of its form within the nation, mentioned Fawzia Amini, who was a senior choose on Afghanistan’s supreme court docket earlier than fleeing Kabul in 2021.

“Khalida is my hero,” Amini mentioned when she and Popal have been in Washington final 12 months to accept the Lantos Human Rights Prize. Amini had been the choose assigned to the soccer federation’s sexual abuse circumstances.

“Due to her, women know find out how to go to the courts to battle for his or her rights,” she mentioned of Popal.

Information of the case reached different nationwide group gamers, together with these in Haiti, Argentina, Canada and Venezuela. They felt emboldened to talk up about sexual abuse dedicated by males of their sport, mentioned Jonas Baer-Hoffmann, the final secretary of FIFPro, the union for skilled soccer gamers that helped Popal with the abuse case.

“Khalida began a giant wave,” he mentioned. “She’s altering the world.”

She can also be attempting to guard others from what she endured.

When she was a teen, Popal mentioned, she wakened after a routine surgical procedure to seek out her limbs tied to the mattress. A health care provider was on prime of her, fondling her.

He stopped, she mentioned, solely when she vomited.

“I wish to be there for the ladies,” she mentioned, “as a result of nobody was there for me.”

When Kabul fell two years in the past, Popal fearful about these women. Whereas confronted with terrifying flashbacks from her personal experiences fleeing the Taliban, she felt an obligation to the generations of ladies she had urged to check society’s limits.

“Save me, sister,” the participant Nilab Mohammadi begged her one evening in a video name whereas holding a gun. “The minute the Taliban knocks on my door, I’ll shoot myself within the head.”

Popal soothed her, promising assist. She rushed to social media and tv to warn gamers to erase proof that they’d performed soccer. Burn your jerseys, she mentioned. Delete your social media accounts.

Palms trembling and coronary heart racing, she referred to as her vast community. A group of attorneys, politicians and human rights advocates joined her to evacuate the gamers. A few of these gamers have been pressured to depart relations behind, and Popal empathized. When she left Afghanistan, she by no means once more noticed her grandfather, whom she referred to as the love of her life. He had instructed her she may change into an unbiased girl and make a distinction on this planet as a substitute of marrying at 13 or 14 and counting on a husband.

Finally, Popal helped greater than 200 gamers and their relations make it safely out of Afghanistan, the place women and girls have since misplaced the liberty to work, attend college and even to go outdoors with out a man.

“Individuals fail to acknowledge what a strategically good thoughts she is,” Lindsey mentioned. “With out her, none of this occurs.”

Popal’s work continues. On any given day, she could also be on a prepare to Berlin or a long-haul flight to Australia, off to simply accept awards or converse at conferences or meet with refugees. She typically wears clothes or skirts, along with her lengthy, wavy black hair flowing over her shoulders, to make up for the years she needed to gown like a person.

After one journey within the fall of 2021, Popal and her boyfriend, Russell Pakzad, visited her mother and father, who had acquired asylum in Denmark in 2016. The odor of lamb simmering on the stovetop wafted by way of the condo as Khalida gave her mom, Shokria, the most recent honor she had gained, the FIFPro Hero Award.

With a bittersweet smile, Shokria leafed by way of a pile of Khalida’s accomplishments: {a magazine} article from Afghanistan, with a portrait of Khalida clutching a trophy; a photograph of Khalida and the nationwide group in Pakistan. Her solely daughter at all times gave her hassle, she mentioned, beginning when Khalida was a schoolgirl who refused to maintain her opinions to herself.

“I simply assume you’re so courageous and fearless,” she instructed Khalida. “I don’t know the place it comes from.”

The following day, Khalida Popal’s telephone had 252 unread messages, many from gamers on Afghanistan’s developmental group. Popal helped evacuate those players from Kabul by choreographing a journey to Pakistan that included the ladies huddling inside an deserted home whereas Taliban fighters roamed outdoors.

Popal had relied on a connection on the Pakistan Soccer Federation to assist the group cross the border and right into a government-sponsored lodge. However now the Pakistani authorities wished the gamers to maneuver alongside.

Popal sought assist from Rabbi Moshe Margaretten of the Tzedek Affiliation, a Brooklyn-based social justice group she labored with throughout the preliminary evacuation of gamers. “She actually impressed me as a result of she was like a mom preventing for her children,” he mentioned.

Popal was on a prepare to Brussels from Paris when the rabbi bought again to her.

“Kim Kardashian paid for the girls’ flight!” Popal mentioned, laughing loudly sufficient to startle different passengers.

The gamers flew to London, after which settled in Doncaster, about 50 miles east of Manchester. It’s only one place Popal routinely visits newly transplanted Afghans.

Although the gamers’ lodge was not open to the general public, Popal strolled by the safety guards in the summertime of 2022 as if she have been in cost. She had work to do: hyperlink the gamers to native soccer groups, arrange job coaching and make sure that they’d psychological well being providers — the identical assist she had given the nationwide group in Australia. That weekend, she took the gamers to the seaside and to the European girls’s soccer championship, pulling a number of coffee-fueled all-nighters to suit it in. Nobody gave her that type of consideration, she mentioned, when she was a refugee.

Narges Mayeli, one of many gamers, mentioned Popal supplied hope.

“I’ve nothing in my life proper now,” Mayeli mentioned. “However the one factor that I do know is that if I put Khalida as my function mannequin, I’m going to achieve success sometime.”

The Ladies’s World Cup was ending in a day and Popal was eking out all of the publicity she may get for the Afghan group earlier than the world stopped watching.

Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist, helped with that.

Malala had flown to Melbourne from Sydney, the place she and her husband, Asser Malik, had attended a World Cup sport. After studying in The New York Instances about Fati Yousufi and the Afghan group, she wished to fulfill the gamers and assist Popal in her efforts.

On a tiny indoor area, with a few dozen tv cameras current, Popal listened as Malala and Yousufi, the group captain, gave speeches. She took deep breaths and stared on the floor to battle again tears.

Malala, who wore the Afghan group’s jersey to the World Cup ultimate the following day, mentioned FIFA wanted to vary its laws to let the group compete as a result of taking part in a sport is a primary human proper.

“It’s time for folks to resolve that they don’t seem to be standing on the Taliban’s aspect,” she mentioned.

Yousufi was subsequent. Since her story turned public, she had been featured at human rights and ladies’s rights conferences, and final Might gave the graduation speech for Chapman College’s legislation college close to Anaheim, Calif. (Yousufi as soon as didn’t use her surname publicly, however does so now that her household has safely left Afghanistan.)

We’re asking them to open the door, open the door for our group, open the door for Afghanistan girls,” Yousufi mentioned, referring to FIFA, as Popal and Malala nodded. “We don’t wish to lose this chance.”

Popal by no means thought she would work alongside somebody with Malala’s stature, or that gamers, like Yousufi, would change into forceful leaders worldwide.

“It’s so lonely and tiring to do that by yourself, which was what I did for a very long time, however now I see that the brand new technology will get it,” she mentioned, choking up. “It’s not all on my shoulders anymore.”

Safiullah Padshah contributed reporting from Kabul.